'Downhill': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Force mineure.
2/14/2020

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell play a couple whose marriage is destabilized by a near-disaster in this American spin on Ruben Ostlund's 2014 Swedish film, 'Force Majeure.'

Starring opposite James Gandolfini in Nicole Holofcener's Enough Said, Julia Louis-Dreyfus showed that her signature acerbic humor and killer timing could very effectively be redirected to access her character's inner life in a dramatic role. She again balances brittle wit with somber emotional depths in Downhill, though sadly, her performance is pretty much all this inert blunder has going for it. An American riff — don't call it a remake, urge the producers — on Ruben Ostlund's Swedish psychological thriller Force Majeure, the Searchlight release misses the mark in scene after scene.

The superficial characterization of a miscast Will Ferrell doesn't help, but the more crippling issue is the filmmakers' fumbling grasp of tone in material that just seems a poor fit. This is not only one of those cases in which a U.S. makeover adds nothing to a memorable foreign-language film, it's the doubly dispiriting variation in which the more commercially minded overhaul relentlessly drains everything that was distinctive, edgy and original about the source.

The basic plot outline remains the same, albeit with a shift from the French Alps to a ski resort in Austria. A middle-class couple, Billie and Pete Stanton (Louis-Dreyfus, Ferrell), whose marriage is showing mild signs of friction, are forced to re-evaluate themselves and each other through a less-forgiving lens when their vacation is marred by what feels like a near-disaster. While taking a break from the slopes at an outdoor mountainside café, they watch stunned as a supposedly controlled avalanche to improve piste conditions rumbles toward them; as it gathers speed and volume, they panic, but when Pete's instinct for self-preservation kicks in, he bolts, showing no concern for his wife and two sons (Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford).

In Ostlund's original, that setup yielded biting black humor but also blistering unease as the icy aftershocks cut deep fissures in the marriage while exposing the fragility of traditional models of masculinity and smashing the reassuring illusion of the paterfamilias as protector. All this took place against a brooding backdrop of majestic snow-covered scenery that became positively malignant.

Co-directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Way Way Back), putting their stamp on an initial adaptation by Succession creator Jesse Armstrong, instead operate mainly in a comedy-of-awkwardness vein that's seldom particularly funny. Nor is their sudden darkening of the mood very persuasive after Billie stops bottling up her anger and spits out her shattered disgust in Pete in the movie's best scene. Where the psychological needling in Ostlund's film was carried out with forensic precision that recalled Michael Haneke with a merciless sense of humor, here it's mostly characterized by the sloppiness of filmmakers who seem reluctant to commit fully either to scathing comedy or to the discomfort of their characters' personal crises.

This is particularly ineffectual in the case of Ferrell's Pete, an unlikable lump of a guy who never seems smart or interesting enough to have married and raised a family with Billie, an attorney who suffers no fools. Glued through much of the early action to his phone, Pete avidly follows the Instagram story of his younger office colleague Zach (Zach Woods) and the latter's new crunchy-granola girlfriend Rosie (Zoe Chao) as they travel through Europe, dispensing hashtags like #NoAgenda and #LiveYourBestLife as they hike the towns along the Rhine on 'shrooms. It's clear Pete is feeling the shrinking pleasures of marriage, fatherhood and middle age, and craving youthful adventure.

When Zach and Rosie turn up and start sharing their bliss, the get-together is soured by Billie's account of the avalanche experience and Pete's defensive self-justification. This generates some dramatic texture as Rosie's smug serenity turns to indignation, which she later expands upon with Billie in a quiet moment on a ski lift. But while simmering Billie takes a solo day, Zach and Pete just drift off into tiresome dude stuff, involving afternoon drinking and a messy dance club interlude.

In Ostlund's film, the equivalent Zach character was played by Kristofer Hivju and his magnificent ginger beard; the actor shows up here briefly in a droll scene as a resort safety chief, unintimidated by the Stantons' litigious threats. But the corrosive soul-searching spurred in Hivju's Force Majeure character by his buddy's family crisis has no echo in blandly drawn Zach.

Perhaps the most glaring example of Naxon and Rash's muddled approach is Charlotte, a louche resort employee who advocates hard-partying hedonism, spending her winters sleeping with guests and her summers back on the farm with her husband. Played in an embarrassing performance by Miranda Otto, she's a Euro-trashy sketch-comedy creation that constantly undermines any authentic emotional stakes in the marital discord of Billie and Pete.

That includes her intervention on Billie's solo day, when she pimps out hot Italian ski instructor Guglielmo (Giulio Berruti) to help loosen up the American guest. This thread also goes nowhere beyond some crudely executed physical comedy for Louis-Dreyfus (warning: do not try masturbating while standing up in snow boots) that just trivializes what the character is going through.

At least Billie's efforts to work through the experience and figure out where it leaves her marriage provide a substantial arc for Louis-Dreyfus, and few come close to her skill at conveying twitchy annoyance. Ferrell, on the other hand, just goes from belligerent dishonesty to pathetic helplessness, unable even to communicate with Pete's boys, whom the script gives almost no role beyond that of routine sullenness and increased clinginess toward their mother. When Pete finally wises up enough to admit he behaved like a "selfish coward," there's no sense of tough self-examination or any real personal cost in Ferrell's shallow performance. And Billie's ultimate generosity in allowing him to save face just ends the film on a sappy note that further robs it of bite, as does the lame metaphor of the constancy and commitment required to "go down the mountain" with a life partner.

Had Downhill looked halfway competent its shortcomings might not chafe quite so much, but almost every shot feels just a little off, every composition oddly clumsy. The best thing to be said about this dreary misfire is that it might send curious audiences off to see the real dramatic and darkly funny sparks generated by a calamity in the vastly superior Force Majeure.

Production company: Likely Story
Distribution: Searchlight Pictures

Cast: Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Will Ferrell, Zach Woods, Zoe Chao, Miranda Otto, Giulio Beruti, Julian Grey, Ammon Jacob Ford, Kristofer Hivju
Directors: Nat Faxon, Jim Rash
Screenwriters: Jesse Armstrong, Nat Faxon, Jim Rash, inspired by the film Force Majeure, by Ruben Ostlund
Producers: Anthony Bregman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Stefanie Azpiazu
Executive producer: Erik Hemmendorff
Director of photography: Danny Cohen
Production designer: Dave Warren
Costume designer: Kathleen Felix-Hager
Music: Volker Bertelmann
Editors: Pamela Martin, Dave Rennie
Casting: Jeanne McCarthy, Nicole Abellera Hallman
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)

Rated R, 86 minutes